“Tears are the juice of our souls”, declares Blueberry the Clown, demonstrating how squeezing a blueberry produces a tear-like drop. He’s born Isaac Solomon Loew, son of a proud, observant Prussian-Jewish immigrant to America’s Deep South. His mother tells him that in Hebrew his name means ‘he who laughs’. It seems it’s this nominative determinism that begins his journey towards becoming a whiteface Pierrot, first in the circus then in vaudeville on Broadway. It’s 1932 and the Depression is kicking in when he meets us, his audience, in his dressing room, after what he confides will be his last ever show. Perhaps Blueberry himself has taken one too many kicks, for you sense the tension behind his rueful smile early on. Still, things are upbeat as he starts to share his life story – and his basket of blueberries – with his public.
Writer/performer Richard Canal’s deep voice is beautiful as he relates his tale – and sings period standards from Blueberry’s act like ‘Painting the Clouds with Sunshine’. At first it’s a tale full of colour and sunshine. Young Isaac plays hooky from synagogue to his father’s disgust. He brands him a luftmensh (Yiddish, literally an air person), a dreamer, as he escapes the reality of life helping in the family pharmacy by seeking adventures with his best friend the shop assistant – Huckleberry, though not yet Blueberry.
Eventually he runs away to join the circus, and gets to be an apprentice clown thanks to a mentor who teaches that honesty marks out the real clown, not humour. Blueberry then is the real thing, for though there are laughs, he is uncomfortably honest about the three great betrayals he has perpetrated and the sex addiction that is his downfall.
Canal’s writing is wonderfully vivid: you can see, hear and smell the circus life with which he falls in love. There’s a nice balance to the raciness, for though he wears it lightly, there’s enough theology here to make a sermon. Judaism is characterised by guilt not confession, he learns. He relates how he accompanies his friend to church to hear a new take on Cain and Abel that becomes all too relevant to the guilt he gradually confesses, symbolically stripping off costume and makeup to don ‘civvies’ as he bares his soul.
Balanced too between tragedy and comedy, Blueberry makes his audience gasp and laugh – and perhaps weep the tears of our souls too. London-based Canal (via Spain and America) is studying towards an MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development at SOAS. He aims to become involved in theatre for reconciliation; on this showing his will be a powerful presence as he works towards making a difference.
By Judi Herman
Cry, Blueberry runs until Friday 19 January. 7.30pm. £10, £7.50 concs. The Cockpit, NW8 8EH. 020 7258 2925. www.thecockpit.org.uk